Since I first published this piece at the end of 2014, there has been an ongoing national conversation about police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and there have been non-stop protests in response them, especially since most are now captured on video. In 2015 there were 102 fatal incidents. So far in 2016 there have been over 194, not including three in the past week in Charlotte, Tulsa, and San Diego. First published in December 2014, this piece reminds us what a constructive protest can achieve.
This morning I drove by the spot where Tyisha Miller took her last breath, the corner of Central and Brockton in Riverside, an intersection I drive by several times a week. And every time I pass the corner, or stop at the gas station I think of her. I think about that night she sat in her car in medical distress. I think of how her cousins and friends must have felt after they called for medical assistance but within a few minutes of the call – seven to be exact – four police officers had shot over 24 bullets into her car with 12 of them reaching their target, 3 of them fatal. And I think about the pain her parents felt and the outrage the community felt in the months and years after the horrific shooting of an innocent teenage girl in the heart of Riverside.
I remember that there were protests immediately after the shooting. National civil rights leaders converged on the city and participated in demonstrations. A diverse community joined in solidarity and instead of holding their collective breath, they "exhaled" yelling for justice. They demonstrated every week for a year. They shut down the 91 Freeway and protested in front of City Hall, making demands of their city leaders to insure that there was never another incident like the Miller shooting in their city.
We are quickly approaching the 16th anniversary of Tyisha's death on December 28 (now 18th), and a new wave of high profile use of force cases involving the police and citizens of African-American descent have sparked massive protests in cities across the nation with a message to our government that all lives matter, even those of young Black men and women. There must be accountability and as then – US Attorney General Eric Holder said in a Justice Department report on the Cleveland Police Department, "there needs to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve."
That report, released on December 4th, found that Cleveland police officers routinely used unjustifiable force against not only suspects, but also victims of crimes. And that structural and systemic deficiencies and practices, insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community have contributed to the use of unreasonable force. Much like the City of Riverside after the Miller shooting, the Department of Justice and the city have announced plans to develop a court-enforceable agreement that would impose an independent monitor on the Cleveland Division of Police.
But unlike other cities, after the Miller shooting in Riverside citizen groups banned together and organized to stop police brutality. After the four officers were placed on administrative leave, and the District Attorney's office said there was no basis for criminal charges against the officers, they admitted "mistakes were made" but did not find the actions to be criminal, the NAACP, Urban League, and most of the Black faith leaders in the city held community meetings and called for the creation of a civilian review board. The group was told that the Law Enforcement Policy Advisory Committee of the city's Human Relations Commission was the police accountability mechanism, but at that point they didn't have the Miller shooting on their agenda. The Miller family created the Tyisha Miller Steering Committee and the community organizations formed the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability. The groups led large marches; small weekly marches, and worked closely with state and federal investigators and sent representatives to Washington to discuss the Miller case with the Department of Justice.
The group brought experts to Riverside to help draft the template for the Community Review Board. They educated like-minded appointees of the city's official Use of Force Panel and because of their persistence they indirectly influenced the final report, which included ten recommendations, including calling for police accountability. The panel, which remained active to monitor the city's progress, stressed the need for community trust and the Coalition continued a community education campaign.
It's unfortunate that cities across our nation are not learning from the egregious errors and incidents of the past. While the relationship between the police and the Black community in Riverside is not perfect, it is better. The current Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz is accessible, community-minded, and he respects the constituency he serves.
The Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability includes numerous organizations: The Group, The Riverside NAACP, Latino Network, Green Party, Riverside County, Inland Valley of the Society of Friends, Democratic Party Central Committee, Jeffery Owens Community Center, and the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside's Social Action Committee. And while the RCPA continues to recognize law enforcement officers and community members for promoting police accountability annually, its lasting legacy is the Community Police Review Commission, which reviews and investigates complaints, makes policy and procedure recommendations to the police department and City Council and acts as a bridge between the community and the police.
Perhaps the cities across this country experiencing the same pain and anger can learn from the citizens of Riverside – organize, become educated, and demand accountability.